Dave Rastovich returned to his birthplace in New Zealand’s largest city to complete an epic 350km lone paddle on a surfboard. Dave is among those raising awareness of the plight of the world’s rarest dolphin. Alison Smith was on the beach at Piha to greet him.
Near Port Waikato just south of Auckland, David Rastovich had been paddling in no wind for four hours, an exhausting mechanical movement toward journey’s end, when the sound of short, delicate breathing woke him from the trance of monotony.
A pod of eight Maui dolphins – a seventh of the planet’s remaining population – had appeared at his side. As if keeping vigil over this lone human in an increasingly treacherous stretch of ocean, for 35 minutes they rode the bow of Rastovich’s board, darting off to play in nearby waves before returning to him.
He later said: “These dolphins are so amazing. They take short, delicate little breaths and they’re really fun. I’ve paddled alongside Blue Whales, and they’ll breathe and let off great clouds of water into the sky. They’re so different to the big whales. They’re cute, and so gentle.”
As Dave approached Manukau Harbour off the coast of Auckland, unruly 6-8ft waves crashed toward him from north and south in raw, chaotic power. “I’ve surfed some big waves but you really appreciate just how powerful this coast is,” he recalled. “hese dolphins were like little seeds squeezed out of your hand, going off to surf the waves and then coming straight back over to me.
“It was incredible that this creature that has been so harmed by us still had the trust to be by me. I just feel so privileged to have met these dolphins, and the first thing that came to my mind was apologies. I said, ‘I’m so sorry, you have lost your families, your aunties and uncles’. Here I was with eight of them – a seventh of their entire population – and yet they were still somehow so trusting of a human that they came up and surfed with me.”
As quickly as they came, the world’s smallest, rarest dolphin then disappeared. “This was their zone. It was chaotic out there, and that was where they turned back. The waters on this coast are the equivalent of any Tahitian or Hawaiian water, and these dolphins should be left alone to it. To be there with them was easily one of the most amazing days of my life.”
Unlike previous paddles undertaken in waters off America, Dave wanted no-one alongside him in the treacherous coast and completed much of the journey alone.
In the safe harbours of coastal communities along the way, however, he was joined by surfers, children and supporters mobilising action against an expected application to the New Zealand Government for the annual dredging of 50 million tonnes of sand for iron ore.
Little is known about the cumulative effect of this dredging but it’s certain that with the top 10m layer of the seabed being effectively vacuumed up, nothing will be left alive. The entire west coast from Wanganui to Cape Reinga is under either a prospecting or exploration permit for iron sand. This happens to be a stretch of coast that’s home to the world’s rarest and smallest dolphin – the Maui’s Dolphin, or Popoto.
With fewer than 15 breeding females, Maui dolphins are among the rarest and most endangered of all mammals.
Researchers claim fishing has progressively decimated numbers from around 1800 individuals in the 1970s to just 50, and the death of more than one individual every 10-23 years will have devastating consequences for the entire population.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation estimate there are just 55 Maui dolphins over the age of one. Explains WWF Marine Advocate Milena Palka: “Maui's are in perilous waters; the number one threat to their survival is fishing with gillnets and trawling but now sandmining poses a new, looming threat on the horizon. We can’t lose a single one in the next 10 to 23 years. We need a unanimous message from the people that these dolphins are Taonga (treasures), they are important to them, they deserve to be here, and we must all act now to save them.”
The plight of this playful little dolphin has brought together people of all backgrounds and talents to oppose the mining of black sand on the west coast. The people all share a connection to the coast and a sense that allowing minimal economic benefit to drive a unique species of marine mammal to extinction would bring shame to New Zealand.
Among those supporting efforts to save the Maui dolphin is Jean-Michel Cousteau, whose Facebook page states: “New Zealand has one final chance to put this right. But it needs to act now and remove gillnets and trawl nets from the dolphins’ habitat immediately. Failure to do so means that New Zealand is wilfully allowing this unique cetacean species to become extinct. Such an act will not only damage the reputation of New Zealand’s fishing industry forever but destroy the country’s environmental reputation.”
Freesurfer David Rastovich is using his surfing profile, passion for environmental causes and oceanic skills to help this species balanced on the knife-edge of survival.
On the black sands of Piha, a crowd of 200 or so people were scanning the horizon for the lone surfer. As he appeared around Nun Rock, the deep whirring sound of a Maori traditional instrument and Maori call brought him to shore. The crowd whooped and cheered as Rasta landed and took a momentary pause with hand on his heart before speaking.
“This is very humbling for me. It’s a beautiful culture you belong to. Thank you for your warm aroha and hospitality. No-one on this trip wants seabed mining on this coast: farmers, fishermen, grommies, surfers – we want some sort of action. We’ve put faith in Kiwis Against Seabed Mining (KASM) to urge everyone to join their email list so you can oppose seabed mining when it comes up, but you have to make a lot of noise. The world is watching New Zealand right now.” - as published in the Tropicsurf Annual 2015.
If you're spending a lot of your day in bare feet, then chances are you have found the kind of balance that Hook & Arrow writer Alison Smith has found in life.